Karen Catlin, Advocate for Women in the Tech Industry
Early in my career, a mentor taught me to give technical talks following a simple format:
- Tell them what you’re going to tell them (share your agenda)
- Tell them (make your points)
- Then tell them what you just told them (recap).
The approach was sensible and logical. I followed the format for most of my professional career, first as a software engineer, then as I moved into tech leadership roles.
Then I saw my first TED talk. I realized that the best talks start with a story. The story draws us in. It gets us thinking about what we would do if we were in that situation. It hooks us.
Stories help audiences empathize. They’ll play with it, try to solve it in their minds, and engage with what you’re saying. If you just say you’re a data center expert who led a successful migration, then there is nothing for them to do. You keep them passive. But if you start with, “We were a victim of our own success. Our service had gone viral, and our data center couldn’t keep up,” your audience starts thinking, “There’s a problem here, how did they solve it, how would I solve it?”
Now, instead of starting my presentations with an agenda, I look for a story to share. It may be about a problem I faced as I embarked on a project, or a gnarly issue I had to deal with in the course of that project. I look for the “dark and stormy night” to hook my audience.
Personal stories are often the best. Imagine your talk is about three things you’ve learned for handling a distributed denial of service attack. You could say, “In my talk today I will share 3 best practices for handling a DDoS attack.” Or, you could start with a story. “Six months ago, our web site was facing a DDoS, a serious network attack. It was our first, and we didn’t know what to do. In my talk today, I’ll share 3 best practices for handling a DDoS that we wish we had known that night.”
Or, you can set context with a hypothetical situation that your audience may be facing. For example, if your talk is how to create and populate your first GitHub account in less than an hour, you could start with “Imagine you’re applying for your first tech internship, and the application asks for your GitHub account. But you don’t have one. And you’re meeting the recruiter in an hour.” And then go from there, with your audience captivated and waiting to see how you solve the problem.
Stories are memorable and repeatable. When you captivate an audience with your story, they remember it and share it with others. “I just saw so-and-so’s talk. They spoke about how they sidestepped a whopper of a security breach just six months ago.” You reach more people when you give your audience something to remember and talk about.
So, as you craft your next tech talk, think about grabbing your audience’s attention with the equivalent of the classic “It was a dark and stormy night.” Whether personal or hypothetical, your audience will love your story.
For more tips on creating an engaging talk and delivering it like a pro, check out “Present! A Techie’s Guide to Public Speaking.”
I look forward to seeing you on stage.
Karen Catlin is a leadership coach, an advocate for women in the tech industry, a TEDx speaker, and co-author of “Present! A Techies Guide to Public Speaking.” A sought-after public speaker herself, Karen regularly gives talks at leading tech companies, conferences, and universities.
Formerly, Karen was a vice president at Adobe Systems.
Karen holds a degree in Computer Science from Brown University.